Thursday, 4 February 2010

Right and wrong

Last month, there was an upsetting and disturbing court case in the UK. Two young brothers of ten and eleven, were found guilty of attacking a couple of younger boys, who appear fortunate not to have died from their injuries. The details of the case make for difficult reading, with beatings, torture and sexual acts, being part of the attack.

I would like to state straight away that I fully support the sentencing of these children and the need for them to stay in a secure place of safety for many years to come. I am not a 'do gooder', but nor am I a member of the 'hang 'em and flog 'em' brigade. There are no excuses, but there are reasons. We give away control of our behaviour with excuses, but once we understand the reasons, we can take control and change.

What does interest me though, is the difference between knowing right from wrong and understanding that all actions have consequenses. The ripple effect. In most cases, if we make an action, then we should take responsibility for doing it and not blame others. But many adults can have major problems with that one. "My friend/wife/husband made me get drunk last night" is a classic version of the childish, "they made me do it." And how many adults blame people who are dead or gone out of their lives, for some behaviour in the present day? Out of emotionally immature brains will come,"It's not my fault" and a blaming of someone/something else. Some of our politicians and sporting heroes don't help as role models.

After the court case, the usual comments were made by adults, that at the age of ten and eleven, the boys should know right from wrong. That is true. But what children don't have a full comprehension of, is that all actions have consequenses. They may hear those words, but their immature, emotional brains are unable to interpret them meaningfully. An understanding comes with a maturing brain. Aged eleven, I knew that shoplifting was very wrong, but it didn't stop me from doing it for seven years.

Many people appear to have a lack of knowledge of the difference between 'right and wrong' and 'action and consequenses'. As a result, an adult's expectations of a child's behaviour can sometimes be unrealistic, while they also make mistakes themselves. eg: "Oh, I never thought that would happen."

The boys were sentenced to "an indeterminate sentence, with a minimum of five years to be served." There isn't a hope in hell of the boys being released in 2015, it was legal language. But, of course, the media went to town on the 'five years', stoking up fear in people by presenting images of a future when two disturbed teenagers would be let loose amongst the population. While it was perfectly natural for the victims' parents to be emotional, other emotionally aroused members of society were sought for their opinions, to be aired on TV, radio, internet and the newspapers. There was much emoting about the evilness of the children.

Were these boys born evil? It's the old nature versus nuture debate. While there were mentions of the negative parenting they had experienced, the parents themselves have not been punished, as yet. It was reported that the boys are part of a large family, where the father is an alcoholic and regularly assaulted the mother in front of the boys. The boys had watched adult, violent and sexually graphic films. They drank cider and smoked cannabis. The mother said that she wasn't to blame.

With the parental history, these two boys may have been born with fetal brain damage, we shall never know. Certainly alcohol and cannabis are mind altering substances, which can have damaging and long lasting effects on adults, let alone the developing brain of a young child. The children not only saw violence in their own home, but saw it on the TV too. It was normal behaviour to them. Most children will grow up in homes believing for a time, that their own environment is normal and universal, whatever happens in it. Copying behaviour used at home is not unusual.

To the people who think that seeing disturbing/unsuitable images doesn't affect the developing brain, could I point to the power of advertising. Billions are spent on advertising. Because it works at altering thoughts and behaviours.

Parents are flawed human beings, I don't know of anyone who is perfect (that's another topic) and my children will remind me that sometimes they were brought up with the "do as I say, not do as I do" approach. But I believe as adults, we do have personal responsibility for our actions and it's something we have to teach our children. We should try to lead by example, if we want our children to learn. Not easy, especially when we are stressed, unwell, worried and/or unhappy. Perhaps we don't even know how, due to our own upbringing? Unchangeable excuses or changeable reasons?

If, as adults, we show children that we blame others for our actions and that it's okay for adults to behave in ways that children shouldn't, what signals are they picking up?

It can amuse (and upset) a parent, to see their young child develop habits they have picked up from a primary carer, such as sitting/walking/eating in a certain way or repeating a well used phrase. I recall a two year old child in my toddler group twenty years ago, playing shops. When I had filled his bag with goodies, I asked for some money. He said, "Do you take a credit card?"

So why should there be surprise when a child copies less desirable behaviour? In one of the 'child rearing' TV programmes, a toddler was running around the house 'effing' at her parents. The dad was slouching in his chair trying to do his best, but shouting, " How many times have I told you, will you f..king stop using that word." How many parents do you hear shouting, "Will you stop shouting at me!" No wonder children receive mixed messages. Yes, of course, I am as guilty as the next person.

At a very early stage of development, a child will begin to understand that some things they do are 'right and good and some are 'wrong and bad'. They will also associate certain words and actions with these 'right/good' or 'wrong/bad' behaviours. If a 'wrong/bad' behaviour is given attention, then it can hardly be surprising that the child may repeat it, if it is attention that they want and need. They may be learning early on to accept the pain, in order to get the pleasure. (Another future blog topic.)

But do young, immature brains really understand the consequenses of their actions, especially if threatened consequenses don't come to fruition? eg: Seen and heard in every high street, every day. "If you carry on doing..., such and such will happen to you." A child can quickly work out that the person never carries out the threatened consequenses. I admit that sometimes, I have to seriously control myself from speaking out, when I hear obvious idle threats, especially if the threat is something ludicrous or the boundaries keep moving as the threats are repeated.

That's why it can be successful with children, to only suggest consequenses that can actually be carried out, and preferably in the next few hours. Most importantly, the consequenses must be carried out for credibility to be maintained. Adults know that too, for instance, with motoring offences.

I was a 'naughty girl'. It says so in my school report and I was continually being told off. I don't think there was a classroom I didn't stand outside from the age of four to sixteen. Detentions served no useful purpose at all. They certainly weren't a deterrent. My mother's wroth might have been, but I learnt to forge her signature. I learnt to lie well too.

I certainly knew right from wrong, but sometimes didn't really understand why something was wrong. As I grew up, I also developed a 'so what' attitude, as I couldn't seem to do much right at times. I grew up with a sense of injustice, at what didn't seem fair. That turned into a double-edged sword. Many of my adult activities have been motivated in a helpful way by that sense of injustice, but the 'mini me' aged about ten years old, saying "it's not fair", has hijacked me on too many occasions to be useful. She will still attempt to get me to listen to her at times, though I'm feeling more grown up these days and tell her to "shut up and go away!".

So when did things change for me and how? Little by little and only when I could see the possible results of my actions and take personal responsibility for them. It's what I call the 'penny dropping moment'. Some call it 'a lightbulb moment', when suddenly the possible consequenses reveal themselves in all their glory. Unfortunately it doesn't happen all at once on one day, when we're fourteen. I wish it did. Emotional maturity is little different from physical maturity in that respect.

Being emotionally aroused gives us tunnel vision and we are unable to think/hear/see straight. Seeing consequenses depends on our ability to think further that the moment we find ourselves in. Being in a state of lowered emotional arousal is crucial to effective thinking.

Personally, some unhelpful behaviours, such as drug taking, I never even started. The first time I was offered drugs and despite being a rebellious teenager, I remember 'seeing' an uncertain future and declined. A miracle as far as I'm concerned. But teenage shoplifting went on until a day when I was eighteen and waiting for a shop keeper to move away from the counter. Suddenly a picture of a future of being chucked out of college and not doing the work I wanted to do, loomed up in my head and I never shoplifted again. Drinking too much went on into middle age and so on, with other behaviours.

In some local authorities, there is a crime/victim scheme, where the convicted person visits the victim to understand the results of their actions. I fully support this scheme. Although some criminals may not care about their victims, most have behaved on the spur of the moment, giving no thought at all to the effects arising from their actions. When faced in calmer circumstances, with the victim telling them how the crime has affected and is still affecting them and others, it can be a revelation. "I never realised..." No, you didn't.

My thoughts are that the young boys in Yorkshire may have known what they were doing was wrong, but through their learnt behaviour, they probably thought it was normal and would have been unable to think through of the consequenses of their actions. They were certainly only 'living in the moment'.

I am tempted to say, 'It wasn't their fault" and excuse their actions by blaming the dysfunctional upbringing they experienced. But then there is always the question, "why doesn't everyone bought up in a family like that, behave in the same way?" Back to nature versus nurture? The subject of trauma damaged thinking will have to wait.